Chaplain to explore psalms, Buber, faith

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Jews today need to rediscover the spiritual resources of the psalms, turning to them for solace"as previous generations did," said Rabbi Edward Feld.

Moreover, the psalms that were left out of the prayerbooks — those dealing with anguish and personal suffering — may be the ones "we can connect with most easily," said the author of "How to Read Psalms."

With that in mind, Feld, who is Jewish chaplain at Amherst and Smith colleges, will deliver a sermon titled "A Psalm, a Song for the Sabbath Day" at 7:30 p.m. next Friday at Congregation Netivot Shalom, 1841 Berkeley Way, Berkeley.

The service kicks off the Massachusetts rabbi's weekend as scholar-in-residence in a Berkeley program jointly sponsored by Netivot Shalom, Congregation Beth El and the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center.

On Saturday, Jan. 9, the rabbi will deliver two talks at the BRJCC, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. During the 9 a.m. Torah study, he will discuss "Let Me Go and Return to My Brothers," and at 4 p.m. he will discuss his 1991 book, "The Spirit of Renewal: Finding Faith After the Holocaust."

At 11 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 10, he will discuss "Martin Buber and the Quest for a Spiritual Community" at Beth El, 2301 Vine St., Berkeley.

Beyond such oft-recited psalms as 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd"), 24 ("The earth is the Lord's") and 150, the "Hallelujah," which has been set to music by Lewandowski and others, most of the 150 psalms are unfamiliar to modern readers, said Feld in an interview from his Massachusetts home.

"It's hard for us to enter into the poetics of psalms. It's hard for us to understand what to expect when we read a psalm and what to look for," said Feld, who is also Smith's interim dean of religious life.

What Feld looks for are encounters between individuals and God, expressed in human terms. Paraphrasing sociologist of religion Peter Berger, Feld said the psalms provide the first encounter "in the history of civilization" with the personal "I."

"Here are the first moments in which we have records of individual people praying, and for the most part, those psalms did not enter into the Jewish prayerbook," said Feld, who was ordained in the Conservative movement.

What were included were the psalms praising God. However, "the psalms of personal suffering — [revealing] the sense of longing for God, the sense of the absence of God — those psalms were not included, for some obvious reasons. They were thought to be inappropriate to the sense of joy that one should have in the synagogue."

Two of Feld's favorites are Psalm 73, which contains the phrase "…my feet had almost strayed," and 77, which begins, "I cry aloud to God."

"Here you have biblical poets trying to understand their own [experience] of the absence of God in light of the theological claim that God once helped Israel. Now they feel deserted," he said.

For Feld, 55, such psalms don't simply express anguish, but the sense that " there is a hope."

In his talk on the late Jewish theologian and philosopher Buber, best known for his book "I and Thou," Feld will be discussing why Buber turned to Chassidism for inspiration and what Chassidism can offer other Jews.

Buber, Feld said, was the first theologian to "bring Chassidism to the West. He felt there were two great moments of Jewish spirituality — the first being the Bible the second being the Chassidic revival," which began in late 18th-century Eastern Europe. Feld said Chassidism's contribution, according to Buber, is the "movement to find God in everything and everywhere."

Before working at Smith and Amherst, Feld — a New York City native — was Hillel director at the University of Illinois and later at Princeton University.

During a 1990 sabbatical fromuniversity life, Feld was a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, which was founded by Rabbi David Hartman. While the institute is nominally under Orthodox auspices, Feld said, it "brings together Israel intellectuals of all stripes." Catering to government officials and Judaica scholars, the institute is committed to stimulating a "pluralistic conversation" about Judaism. "It's one of the rare places in Israel that's happening," he said.

Feld is also chair of the Conservative movement's High Holy Days prayerbook commission, of which Netivot Shalom Rabbi Stuart Kelman is a member. The new prayerbook is scheduled for completion in 2008, but Feld said the first booklet — Kol Nidre services — will be available next fall.

Feld's wife, Merle Feld, is a Jewish poet and playwright. Her plays are performed in synagogues throughout the country and her poems have been anthologized in prayer books. In addition, poems written by Feld and his wife appear in the Reconstructionist prayerbook.

The East Bay's scholar-in-residence series hosts weekend programs through May. A Feb. 7 lecture features Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, from the University of Judaism, discussing "Knowing God: Jewish Journeys to the Unknowable."

Admission to the Jan. 8 to Jan. 10 program is $30. Series discount passes that span the entire spring program are available for $125.

For information, call BRJCC, (510) 848-0237, ext. 110.